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Before water got so full of itself, it was a great little social mixer. With a history dating from ancient times when villagers would mingle by the well, it delighted in providing simple ways to foster sociability.

Hobos (as the geographically mobile homeless were called) could open a request for assistance from housewives (as geographically stranded working women were called) with a modest and undeniable plea for a glass of water.

Office workers could refresh themselves with gossip, complaints and jokes around the water cooler.

Children could stave off bedtime by the transparent but effective demand for a glass of water.

Things have changed, Miss Manners has observed. The need for water is recognized as being more important than ever, but the sociability that went along with it has vanished.

Fearfulness about crime has barred doors to strangers. Of old, the homeowners were aware that granting a request for water would lead to other demands, but they may not have had so vivid an idea as what those might be.

The water cooler has lost its appeal now that people can gossip more comfortably by e-mail and take their breaks by playing computer games, both activities being less visible to supervisors than grouping together.

And any self-respecting child, indeed any self-respecting citizen, now carries around his own water bottle.

The effects are not all as beneficial as water would like to pretend. And it has become nothing if not pretentious.

Adopting the snobbishness of wine and the importance of medicine, all water thinks of itself as holy water. As it splashes around, it is creating etiquette problems.

"On two occasions, while attending church service, I saw people taking a couple of sips from their sport bottles," reports one Gentle Reader. "Is this acceptable?"

"As with many people," announces another, "I frequently carry my own store-bought water (both abroad and in the States). At a restaurant where we were having lunch, I refilled my water glass from my own water bottle. My brother found this to be extremely rude, while I found it a very practical solution to being thirsty. I should add that the water provided by the restaurant was at a fee. Was this indeed rude and cheap of me?"

Yet another Gentle Reader complains, "An uncomfortable situation arises if I am in the car, where I keep a bottle of water (I am in the habit of carrying drinking water with me wherever I go) or on an outing with small children whose parents invariably haven't bothered to think about drinking water. When they see me drinking, they begin complaining that they're thirsty.

"I seem to get sick often enough as it is, without 'help' from other people, and am fastidious about others not drinking from my bottle. On the other hand, I feel badly about being the cause of an unhappy child. Occasionally, the parents are miffed at my refusal when they ask if their little ones can share my water. Is there a tactful way out of this situation?"

The way out of all these problems is the realization that none of this involves administering water on an emergency basis to the critically parched. You may drink more water than you used to because it is good for you, and you may find it convenient to have your favorite brand on hand, but this does not wash out the basic restrictions on eating and drinking:

You do not take refreshment during church services or on other solemn or formal occasions.

When you go to a restaurant, you buy its wares, rather than bringing your own (unless there is a policy allowing that, inevitably accompanied by a corking fee).

When you are out with other people, you do not take refreshment unless you have some to offer them, too.

Party poopers

Dear Miss Manners: What would you do if you received minimal "RSVP's" to an upcoming party you were hosting? It seems pretty rude to not even respond to an invite, but do you track everyone down?
Gentle Reader: Unfortunately, you have to, unless you want a lot of leftovers or a lot of hungry guests. If it were Miss Manners, she would hang onto the list of people who needed prodding. It will serve as an invaluable reminder, for the next party, of whom not to invite.

Address your etiquette questions to Miss Manners, in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240 or The quill shortage prevents Miss Manners from answering questions except through this column.

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